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The Flare Path: Decisive Campaigns Debrief

Modellers of materiel and minds

Can you spare ten minutes? I'd like you to meet the two men behind Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa, the Ostfront office politics sim that's causing quite a stir in Grognardia at the moment. Cameron Harris (left) is the Young Turk whose passion for personality-driven strategy gaming gave rise to DCB's cast of self-interested, squabble-happy military NPCs. Victor Reijkersz (right) is the veteran hex hewer responsible for the game's vital code superstructure and for keeping Cameron's wilder design impulses in check.

RPS: Victor, as I understand it, previous instalments of DC were essentially solo efforts. Why did you decide to team up with Cameron for this one?

Victor: I've always worked closely with the players, testers and volunteers (There is a lot of talented and bright people in the wargamer community. Sometimes it feels like every active player has a library at home, served in the army or did some advanced studies... or all three.) I've always been developing in an environment of intelligent people giving constructive feedback and new ideas. Working on Advanced Tactics and Decisive Campaigns never felt like working alone. But yes, in the end I was the only and sole developer.

Teaming up is something I have tried to do for a long while. It's good for creativity and quality levels and it allows for a certain measure of division of labour. It just proved harder to find a compatible designer than I thought. It requires immense effort to complete a game. Not everybody has the stamina. Even less the stamina and the talent. Cameron proved to have both. The result of our teamwork is arguably the best Decisive Campaigns game in the series so far. Effectively doubling the team size allowed us to spend much more time developing essential parts of the game like story, immersion and AI.

RPS: Cameron, you're obviously a man steeped in Eastern Front history. What is it about the subject that you find so fascinating?

I'll have to decline the compliment. If it was up to me the game would have been fought by Hitler and Stalin with a couple of divisions each, slowly expanding out into a procedurally generated map of Russia. I'm a 4X type of game player and rarely venture into set-piece historical simulations. On the other hand I have a good general knowledge of the conflict and have read my way through more books on the subject than is probably good for me.

I find that I bounce off typical wargames after a brief encounter. They are, to my mind, too dry and mathematical. When I was in college a friend brought an old copy of SPI's War in the West board game and five of us decided to play the full campaign. I'm not sure how big the map was (46 square feet. Stats Ed) but I remember thinking you could wallpaper your house with it. After two days of solid effort we hadn't managed to complete a single turn. We spent most of that time on set-up and rules comprehension. It was an educational experience in the futility of doing more of the same.

The people aspect of military conflict interests me a great deal as does the art of command which is, in reality, a lot less clean, clinical and God-like than what we found in SPI's magnum opus of endless counters, maps, charts and tables. As I've had little experience with traditional computer based wargames I've had to design Decisive Campaigns Barbarossa from the ground up without recourse to traditional approaches. This has probably worked to my advantage as the end result is a design centred around people, decisions and command that has a lot of fairly unique mechanics.

Which is not to say that I've invented the light bulb here as Vic acted as an excellent sounding board and wisely persuaded me that a number of my ideas might be best left in the cupboard.

Right at the back, next to the rat poison.

I was given the option of choosing which conflict I would prefer the game to be about, the only stipulation being that it was historical. I opted for the Eastern Front as it had such an interesting diversity of characters and provided a wide canvas for portraying command from several different viewpoints. Being gritty, brutal and desperate it was also a conflict where everybody involved was under tremendous pressure. Second place didn't come with pat on the back and a silver medal.

RPS: At times DCB's personality-rich politics brings to mind Crusader Kings 2. Was the Paradox game an influence?

Cameron: To be honest I've played very few games in the last couple of years as making games has proved much more interesting and time intensive. I did play the original CK and enjoyed it. Probably any game that managed to interweave people with strategy has been a positive influence.

An older game, Knights of Honour, made a strong impression as it put people front and centre. You had a maximum of nine characters and they could be military, religious, mercantile, spies etc. Each one played a key role in the strategic side of the game. You could dramatically alter your approach depending on your chosen mix of characters. It's also a game where you were able to develop a relationship with the characters, something that added greatly to the immersion. Not all that dissimilar to CK.

RPS: Victor, I know you're rather proud of DCB's AI. What are its particular strengths and weaknesses, and how much of its wiliness is down to careful scripting?

Victor: No AI is perfect, but it's the best work I have done so far. Its strength is that it knows when to hold or retreat and when to run. Run? Yes... running is a good strategy if you are about to be encircled. And even when encircled the AI will try to breakout. Another strength is that it will try to take advantage of encirclement opportunities and knows the game mechanics well enough to compare dozens of risks and opportunities and arrive very often at a good choice.

To avoid repetitive play the AI rolls a virtual dice at start of game to decide its main plan for the game about to be played. The German AI has at the moment about 12 different plans at its disposal, while the Soviet AI works with a dozen or so different small plans that get combined dynamically in effectively unlimited grand plan variations. Furthermore there is difficulty level balancing. The game design and the AI design have to match with each other... match with Barbarossa. Where in previous titles when fighting the AI you might end-up with a mopping-up operation in the later game stages, there is challenge up till the end in Barbarossa. This is partly due to the topic choice where the Soviets keep receiving new armies over time, but also due to the willingness of the AI to trade ground for time.

There is AI scripting, but it's very limited. We make it aware of what towns to really hold, what rivers provide a good defensive line opportunity, and what it means when deep winter arrives and what ground can be safely abandoned. But basically the core scripting consists of a couple of map layers with some modifying weights assigned on the hexes as well as some scripting for the earlier mentioned Soviet sub-plans. For example there is scripting that the Dnieper is a good river to defend and that Leningrad is a city that should be held at all costs. Almost always the AI only picks up scripted modifiers and applies them to its black box algorithms, only a few times depending on the Soviets AI sub-plans there is actually hard scripting of a specific army to take up a reserve position somewhere (like Riga or the Crimea).

Weaknesses? Let me just say that time is always a limiting factor to AI development. References to chess AI development are probably unnecessary. I still have a list of stuff I'd like to teach the AI ranging from abstract concepts of having better mid-level plans involving 2-3 armies over say 16x16 hexes over like 4-6 rounds to more concrete and case-specific stuff like making the AI better aware of the necessity to take high losses in order to crush a recent and still relatively weak enemy bridgehead over a major river.

RPS: Go Soviet in DCB and you end up role-playing Joseph Stalin. Go German and you're Franz Halder. Why did you decide to make Hitler an NPC rather than the Axis avatar?

Cameron: One of the aims of the game is to provide asymmetrical command experiences. As the German player you're operating from within the chain of command whereas the Soviet player is sitting at the apex. Both came with different design challenges.

Franz Halder had subordinates and superiors, the most notable of which was Hitler. Finding a way of giving the player the sense of the constant meddling of an overbearing Führer who was prone to change his mind, wasn't easy. There's a fine line between doing so and imposing too many restrictions. The eventual means of depicting Hitler allows the player to determine the level of interference he was willing to accept.

At the start of the game the German player is required to choose one of three strategies. The first, default, one is to support Hitler. The player will benefit from a benevolent Führer who will grant them plenty of Political Points and other advantages. The downside to this is having Hitler leaning over your shoulder, backseat driving your Panzergruppes. There's a good chance that he'll issue his own orders directly which will manifest as a reduction (not major but enough to be annoying) in their Action Points as they attempt to resolve the confusion this creates.

The player will also be chasing an objective determined by Hitler. He was a man of whims and every month there is a chance he'll call a conference and determine a new objective. You may find yourself banging on the gates of Leningrad only to have the Führer suddenly decide that it's the Donitz basin resources and Rostov that are important.

On the other extreme you could demand the right to fight the war on your own terms with a strategy of 'Military Independence'. Hitler won't interfere and will patiently wait for you slip up so he can fire you. While you'll be reluctantly invited to his monthly conferences, attending could well see your stocks plummet with the men under your command. You'll be free to choose your own objective but you'll have a harder road to follow as the Führer will certainly not be going out of his way to assist you.

There are other mechanics such as having your ability to reassign a Panzergruppe to an adjacent theatre being based on your relationship level with Hitler. Not going to happen if he doesn't have faith in you.

Figuring out how to deal with the player as Stalin was probably one of the hardest design challenges in the game. When you've got absolute power and everybody is a subordinate there isn't much of a 'people' aspect involved. Luckily Stalin himself came up with a solution. Here was a man who rose to power through foul means and worse. He was a strong advocate of 'watch your back, Jack'. His paranoia provided a central point where all the people beneath him become potential threats. There's a basic tension when playing Stalin between having a competent, popular commander who is going to help you save the day and the rising levels of paranoia that such individuals create. When Stalin inevitably blows his fuse the competent commander is likely to be the first person he orders shot.

The motley collection of apparatchiks, toadies and other militarily useless sycophants that the Soviet player typically has at the start of the campaign will stumble and bumble their way to defeat but they won't present a threat to Stalin's peace of mind. It's a challenging balancing act that the Soviet player is required to master with the help of his dark eminence, the roving troubleshooter Commissar Khruschev.

The fun part of playing Stalin, despite the constant blows you are taking from the blitzkrieging Germans, is the ability to be a genuinely ruthless dictator. Play like a gentleman and you'll end up as Panzer poo.

RPS: Most wargame developers seem reluctant to engage with the darker ethical dimensions of their subject matter. Do you understand that reluctance and were facets of Barbarossa history too dark even for DCB?

Cameron: The decision space in the game has a number of elements. Every decision affects something. They all matter. Every time you make a judgement call you're liable to please somebody and upset somebody else. The Dark Side was included in the game (it's optional and switched off by default) to tap into the player's personal sense of right and wrong. Nobody wants to do the wrong thing but it becomes a lot tougher when the cost and relationship implications of doing the right thing are significant. The niggling voice in the back of your head that is telling you that covering up the 'incident' in Minsk isn't morally right will have to shout down the one pointing out that making a stand will mean you won't have the Political Points (PP) necessary to push for those new tank engines to be released.

Cut too many moral corners and you'll be explaining yourself before the war crimes tribunal once the campaign is over. But only if you lost. How hard are you willing to press your severely fatigued Divisions? If you've got a dubious record behind you, very hard indeed.

Once the Dark Side is put in the context of its effect on Operational Command (it's a game, not a political statement), the depths of the shadows that the light is shined upon is pretty straightforward. Anything that goes beyond providing an ethically infused military related decision is off limits. Overall it's well flagged, optional and geared to be as generic as possible. The players imagination does most of the work.

RPS: Do you know exactly how many decision texts you wrote for DCB? Do any of them make you smile particularly broadly when you encounter them in-game?

Cameron: There is an awful lot of writing in the game. All the background reading I did gave me a good idea of various personalities and I attempted to write each report from the perspective of the character who sent it.

The Divisional events would be my favourite. Every battle the Germans fight is tracked and reported upon and, given the right triggers and a random roll, can result in an event related to a Commander of a Division involved in that particular battle. This comes about from your Theatre Commanders reading the same reports and, on occasion, adding their own comments and recommending further action. This could result in a wide range of outcomes such as a commendation, a desire to use the unit for propaganda purposes, cultural difficulties with non-German units, accusations of dysfunctional command etc.

Each of these results in an official process being put into place. The commander and his Division will be given a provisional status, eg. sanction pending. At some point the matter will come to the attention of the Heer bureaucracy (might take a while but sometimes certain incidents can be prioritised) and action taken. As all the outcomes are of some significance, the action will require your approval and you'll find a decision in front of you that has the original battle report attached and a recommendation from the relevant theatre commander on the matter.

If we take the straightforward example of issuing a sanction against a particular Commander and his Division for poor performance on the battlefield, you'll have several options. You could approve it but that Division will spend the rest of the campaign with a permanent combat malus as it now has a poor reputation and other formations will be reluctant to work with it. Clearly you wouldn't voluntarily want to do this to one of your units but you've got your Theatre Commander jumping up and down demanding that you back his judgement. He has the perspective of maintaining discipline, morale and standards within his theatre. If you disallow the sanction he's going to be upset and your relationship will deteriorate which has wide ranging consequences.

Interestingly the cost in Political Points (command potential and resources) of choosing either option is going to be a factor of your existing relationship with your Theatre Commander. If you're getting along well then he'll be more understanding and the options will be low cost. But if you're not on speaking terms you can expect to have to exert your command authority over your nominal subordinate and the cost will be higher. Each time a related situation arises (with different Divisions & events) you could be in a different decision space.

If you're on good terms you might decide to disallow the decision and wear the hit to your relationship knowing that you'll still be on the right side of your Theatre Commander. On the other hand it would be unwise to aggravate an already deteriorating relationship and it may well be the lesser evil to have the 19th Panzer Division and it's hapless Commander spend the rest of the campaign labouring under a black cloud of suspicion and combat inefficiency.

I love these decisions as they are directly related to actions that you, the Player, have taken - you've ordered poor old Gen Lt. O. Von Knoblesdorff to throw his 19th Panzer Div at two strongly entrenched Soviet Rifle Divisions, knowing that they were pushing their luck. It's all gone pear shaped and now F.M Von Bock, the AGC Theatre Commander has intervened, blaming poor Von Knoblesdorff for the debacle. Six turns later the matter lands on your desk and you're required to back your insistent Theatre Commander or throw the book at Von Knoblesdorff and the 19th Panzer.

Decisions like these not only tell a story but they have you taking an interest in a number of your commanders and Divisions. That's not just a counter you're shuffling up towards Smolensk, that's bl**dy Von Knoblesdorrf and his bl**dy 19th Panzer Div! Get it right this time, son. Get it right!

RPS: The game seems to be going down very well in groggy circles. Are there any aspects of the early customer feedback that have come as a real surprise?

Cameron: Yes, the request for increased levels of delegation. We weren't expecting that.

The map has been split into three separate theatres (or fronts for the Soviets) and this has you effectively playing three mini-games as each theatre acts as an independent entity with it's own logistics, Luftflotte, command structure, etc. The number of counters on the map has been streamlined to the minimum level necessary for the AI to be effective. We thought that this, combined with the grognard target audience, would ensure that most people would be content with the relatively low counter shuffling demands of the game.

The calls for the ability to delegate a theatre to be run by the AI while you concentrate on the other two, lead us to suspect that the game probably may have a broader appeal than we anticipated. I have to admit that being able to handball a theatre, or two, over to your subordinates for a number of turns is an attractive proposition. How aggressively the AI controlled Commander would thrust forward could be geared around his personality. How willingly he is to cede control back to you once you'd like to take over once more could be a factor of your relationship. It's something that would have to be built into the game from the ground up but we've taken note and may well incorporate a similar feature in a future game.

Victor: The role-playing like aspects and the like-you-are-really-there writing by Cameron were received well by almost everybody until now. I expected there to be a sizeable minority resistant to change. So what do you know! Maybe I have to look in the mirror myself and ask who is the real conservative?

RPS: Representing aircraft and artillery with a handful of cards rather than hundreds of counters is quite a bold move. Was this an easy design decision?

Cameron: Yes. Removing micromanagement has been a central element of the design. Both air and artillery are modelled in a fair amount of detail and provide a number of interesting decisions. Having them off the map actually made this easier and allowed for a range of factors to be introduced that wouldn't otherwise have been if the player was already knee deep in fiddly, minor impact, decisions involving multiple air & artillery on-map counters. The one sided nature of the air war in '41 was a big help. If the game's time frame extended past very early '42 then the decision to abstract the air war, in particular, might have had to been revised.

RPS: Did playtester feedback alter the game in any significant way?

Cameron: We've had an excellent group of playtesters who did a great job of stress testing all elements of a deep game. The main impact would be on some major overhauls on how information was presented. There's not much point in the game generating all the info if the players can't easily access it. Improvements like the coloured icons showing the logistical pipelines, the hundreds of tool tips (a number of which are dynamic), the custom regime stats and the tutorial videos all came about as a result of feedback.

Victor: Especially on AI development I could not have done without the testers. Yeah sure I am running dozens of AI-vs-AI matches at night when I sleep, but only humans can send me those savefiles showing special situations that only a human would present the AI with. I replay the testers experiences, see why they raised the issue, and fine-tune the AI behaviour. Lots of iterative rounds like this with the testers do wonders.

RPS: Currently the game ends in early '42. Are the role-playing systems and AI flexible enough to allow longer scenarios? Is there anything (apart from the creation of thousands of new decisions and years of rebalancing and testing!) to prevent you from eventually simulating the war right up to the fall of Berlin?

Cameron: The game is built on a modular foundation and could stretch right to Berlin, if necessary. A similar design could also be applied to any number of major WW2 conflicts. Before and after would also be feasible. There's a big temptation to try something different, however. I was very keen on doing a modern counter insurgency simulation with the ability to play both sides. There's some very interesting aspects centred around current conflicts such as in Syria and Iraq however we've decided that recent events may preclude this as it could easily become the Dark Side personified. Liked the idea though.

Another one kicking around is to do something that straddles the middle ground between a fixed historical simulation and a build-your-own-empire 4x style. But, hey, we don't know. Right now we are still busy thinking about what we can do to improve Decisive Campaigns Barbarossa.

Victor: I would like to add that we are going to share this weekend the Decisive Campaigns Community Project beta with all the Barbarossa owners. It's beta because I am sure it will need some fine-tuning. But it already works well. It is a modular construction kit using new simple and intermediate editors, that are also actually fully documented this time. It's centered around the DC2 rules. You won't be able to build something of the complexity Cameron has done with it, but you would be able to build more straightforward counter-pushing games resembling some of the scenarios from DC1 and DC2. The whole system works around maps and libraries that you can easily exchange with other scenario designers. It has gone a bit under the radar but it has a high potential and we are planning to support it with additional libraries in the future to allow scenario designers to script more advanced stuff into their scenario designs.

RPS: DCB has single-handedly reawakened my interest in the Eastern Front. Which books compliment the game best, and which proved most useful as research tools during development?

Cameron: Franz Halder's war diaries are definitely worth a look. It's fascinating how dysfunctional the German Command Hierarchy was a times. 'Supplying War' by Van Creveld (Cambridge Press) contains the best, and the most easily digestible, account of a vital part of the campaign. Highly recommended.

Victor: Halder's diary indeed. I would recommend most primary sources. Books like Guderian's Panzer Leader and von Manstein's Lost Victories. Heck even von Bock's war diary is worth a read, if only to get a glimpse of the personality of the man. Same with Keitel's memoirs! The books by Glantz are good, but dry-ish. My favourite approach for study of the Eastern Front is to read Glantz or a similar writer together with good maps and several primary sources. Things come alive when you can see how different actors were looking from different perspectives at the same situation. And anybody who made any decision in DC:Barbarossa can confirm that is a sentiment well shared by Cameron.

RPS: Does blog talk of 'Shadow Empire' mean VR Designs is WW2 war-weary after ten years of PZ IIIs and T-34s?

Victor: Opposite my desk I have a small historical library facing me and it is raising an eyebrow at me right now. So my answer is: Not war weary at all! I love WW2 history! That being said and having paid proper respect to my small historical library I have to say I love fantasy and science fiction as well. It's good to work at multiple projects at the same time. I am noting significant cross-pollination.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa is available now priced £36 (A boxed copy complete with a 330-page hardback manual will set you back £47). Flare Path's thoughts on it can be found here

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The Flare Path Foxer

Strewing cryptic AFV snaps in the path of the Flare Path faithful is a bit like scattering detracked T-34s in front of a flock of hungry Henschel Hs 129s. It was only ever going to end one way.

1 (white) M14/41 (All is Well)
1 (black, in penant) 'The Independent' (Palindrome, Rorschach617)
1-2-3-4 Duplex Drive Sherman (AFKAMC)
6 Churchill Mk.I (A22) (Rorschach617, Palindrome)
9 (red) Valentine Mk.II (Palindrome)
9 (white) Whippet (Spinoza, Chiron)
10 Sd.Kfz. 251 (unacom)
15 Mark IX (Rorschach617)
30 M8 Greyhound (All is Well)
45 Cromwell IV (Rorschach617, Spinoza)
51 Churchill Crocodile (Palindrome, Zogg)
53 Sherman Crab (AFKAMC, All is Well)
67 Valentine Mk IX (Rorschach617, Palindrome)
77 M10 (Palindrome, Rorschach617)
104 Tiger II (All is Well)
832 Panzer III (All is Well, Palindrome, unacom)

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Foxer Fact #765

Red Leg, a communist terrorist group that operated on the Isle of Man in the mid 1970s, delivered all of their bomb warnings in the form of foxers. After a blast in Strand Street, Douglas, killed seven tourists on August 11, 1976, Meoiryn-Shee Ellan Vannin called in one of Britain's best known defoxers to help decipher the collages. It turned out to be an inspired move. While working with the IoM Constabulary, Christopher 'Cluedo' Kinnear noticed similarities between Red Leg's collages and the work of an obscure Liverpudlian foxer setter called Frank Leatherland. Placed under covert surveillance, the unsuspecting Leatherland led the police directly to the bombers.

All answers in one thread, please.

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